Denzel fired up for action

VIV THOMAS Denzel Washington turns nasty in his new movie after a girl in his charge is kidnapped. Viv Thomas also discovers the more comic side of his nature.

VIV THOMAS

Double Oscar winner Denzel Washington is sitting in the Dorchester Hotel laughing heartily.

The actor/director has just been asked if he will be playing legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jnr in a bio-pic that he is considering making.

“Now that's comedy! The taller Sammy, Sammy grows up,” he says. “No, I don't think so. Please spread that round – I'm not going to play Sammy Davis Jnr.” He pauses briefly before joking: “But I might…” and squints one eye. “No!”

Then later in the press conference he quips that he turned down the lead role in Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ.

It's a surprising sight to see Washington, who is 50 in December but looks considerably younger, in such comedic form as we don't really see that side of him on the big screen. His reputation has been built on serious roles like Glory and Training Day, which both netted Academy Awards, as well as Crimson Tide, Cry Freedom and Malcolm X.

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Washington's latest film features probably his darkest on-screen persona yet as he plays an alcoholic ex-CIA man turned bodyguard called John Creasy in Man on Fire.

Pulling out one of his best-ever performances, Washington is chillingly convincing as he turns nasty against those responsible for kidnapping a little girl he is paid to protect.

He recalls with glee how director Tony Scott was initially concerned about whether he could play such a dark character. “I think Tony had an idea of me doing this film, I would imagine because of Training Day. Even then he was 'Well, you've gotta be heavy, you've gotta be dark'.

“I'm like 'You want me to cut your throat, show you I can do the part? You worry where the cameras are going to be, I'll worry about being heavy!'”

When working on his character, Washington mentioned to Scott a couple of Scriptures in the Bible. “A part of it was about coming out of the darkness into the light – which I felt was the arc of the character. The darker we could make him, the more depressed and alcohol-driven he was at the beginning of the film, the greater the journey for him.

“This was a character who had seen a lot of death and destruction and probably had his share of killing – as a result of that it has destroyed his soul. He literally has the Bible in one hand and a bourbon in the other and obviously the two of them don't work well together.”

Although there is violence in the film, Washington sees it as necessary for the story. “We had a test screening of the film and the scene with the fingers [being cut off] was even longer and more violent. Interestingly enough, the women didn't complain, the men complained more, they thought it was more violent. So we toned it down. I don't see you could get around it.

“It's not a 'how to' movie, it's a 'what would you do if you were in his shoes' movie. I think this is one of the most heroic characters that I've played in that he's willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for this girl's life.”

He is full of praise for his young co-star Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam), with whom he did some improvisation. “I was really impressed with Dakota – not only her acting skills but she's such a mature young girl and very humble and as normal as a 10-year-old movie star can be. I pray she gets a chance to just hang out with kids and, you know, be a kid. I was really protective – I didn't appreciate people swearing around her.

“The first scene we really did together, she looked me dead in the face and just performed. They cut and I was like 'wow, shoot, I'm in trouble, this chick can act. Wait a minute Tony, come here a second, the girl's gotta go!'” he says, laughing. “She's really straight ahead and I'm convinced she's 40 years old!”

Having made his directoral debut with Antwone Fisher, Washington is keen to explore working behind the camera and admits it was fascinating for him watching Scott's stylish directing.

“I'm directing a film next year and there will be a lot of spinning cameras! The thing I learned from directing the first film is how much I knew or how much I'd stored away from all those wonderful film-makers I've worked with – and I plan to steal from each and every one of them the rest of my life as a film-maker,” he says, flashing a smile.

The film he's directing next year is about a black college in East Texas which had the best debating team in the country in 1935. “They beat everybody,” explains Washington. “There was a 15-year-old freshman, very smart young man by the name of James Farmer who became an integral part of the civil rights movement in America, who was one of the debators. In our story he's also in love with this sophmore junior but of course she doesn't know it – she falls in love with the bad guy. It's a coming-of-age sort of love story mixed with The Little Train That Could.”

Hot on the heels of John Creasy, Washington plays another character pushed to extremes in The Manchurian Candidate, which is out next month. He takes the role of Ben Marco, originally played by Frank Sinatra, a war veteran who believes he has been brainwashed.

“In the case of Man on Fire, he was ready to give up. He was depressed and this little girl wakes him up and teaches him to love and live again. In Manchurian Candidate, he was desperate. He's a man who doesn't know what's wrong with him. I did a lot of research about mood disorders and bi-polar disorders and things like that because he doesn't know what's wrong with him.

“He has been told it's post-traumatic disorder, Gulf War Syndrome, something like that but the story he tells isn't congruous with his dreams so once he finds out something really is going on and then he doesn't know who to trust – then I think he becomes quite desperate, if not manic.”

In The Manchurian Candidate, Marco comes up against the might of the domineering Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, played by Meryl Streep, and Washington admits to being slightly in awe of the great actress.

“I don't have much to do with [Meryl] in the film – I'm just an extra in one of her scenes. I will admit that when we sat down to read the screenplay and I was sitting next to her, I was a bit nervous. You know – a dingo's got my baby,” alluding to A Cry in the Dark in a soft voice.

After squawking with laughter, he continues: “She's brilliant! I mean, what can you say that hasn't been said about Meryl Streep? Had I been smarter I'd have suggested we write a scene, make something up – maybe I go to visit [Eleanor], ask her what's going on, anything. I didn't think about it but hopefully I'll get an opportunity one day.”

Washington comes across as a very thoughtful, spiritual person and he admits he has always felt protected. Asked if he felt guided into making good choices, he says: “Yeah, absolutely, and in fact some of the most difficult scenes I have done in films – like in Glory, being whipped and all of that – I didn't prepare. I just would pray to think about all the slaves that came before me.

“It came to me as I walked out on the set that I'm in charge, that my character was in charge, that he had been through this before and this was nothing new for him. I actually spit at him, I said 'Do it, bring it' and then he hit me. I went 'oh, shoot, ow!'

“Sometimes it's just fate, it's not science. I don't try to figure it out. What I said about roles coming my way, some people may think that's crazy but it has worked out all right for me.”

Although he has two Oscars at home, Washington seems very grounded, not at all obsessed with Hollywood razzmatazz and adding to his mountain of awards.

“As my mother says 'Man gives the award, God gives the reward' so I don't concern myself with awards. I really don't.

“I think in the case of the last one, with Training Day, it was interesting because it was sort of a 'Yeah whatever' kind of attitude. I had been to the party enough times – whatever they're going to do, they're going to do, it doesn't matter. It's a free suit, decent dinner, you know, and go home.

“But the next day I went to the gym to work out and there was a young black actor there and he was like 'Man, maybe you feel that way but not the rest of us. When you didn't win for Hurricane we all just almost collapsed – if he's not going to win what chance do we have? When you won it made us feel we have a shot.'

“I thought 'Wow, ok'. You never know how you'll affect people. Maybe it doesn't affect me that way but it's not always just about me, you know.”

He's currently considering a script for a film co-starring Halle Berry, with whom he shared Oscar glory back in 2002, but won't say yes to it just to be able to work with her. “I've gotta read it first – so we'll see. If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage, as they say.”

Asked how he viewed their historic African-American Oscar double, he says: “The bottom line is that she and I both won because we had good parts to play and, needless to say, black or white, good parts are hard to come by. From what I'm hearing now though Jamie Foxx [Collateral] everyone's saying is brilliant as Ray Charles so he has got a good opportunity.

“An actor with a good opportunity has a shot. Without the opportunity it doesn't matter how good you are – if you don't have a good juicy role to take a bite out of you won't be there on Oscar night.

“So, hopefully, there will be more opportunities – I'm trying to create some by producing and developing more material. If, of course, I don't play Sammy Davis Jnr myself,” he laughs, “I'll try to find someone who can. It's really about the roles, that's the bottom line.”